Elliot Venson was on his way to UNC Charlotte’s student union when he got an alarming message on April 30, 2019: “Run, Hide, or Fight,” the campuswide text message read.

Confused at first, Venson continued to his destination but soon realized something bad had happened.

“I saw a helicopter in the sky, and nearly 15 police cars sped past me,” he now recalls.

Unbeknownst to Venson and most others on campus, a gunman had entered a classroom and fired 17 rounds. Six people were struck by bullets — two of whom died.

As mass shootings continue to rise in the United States — the latest was reported early Sunday in California’s capital city of Sacramento — the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) has been teaching local residents what they should do to increase their chances of surviving an active shooter.

On April 21, the department will host its latest installment of “How will I survive an active shooting?” a two-hour course it began more than five years ago.

John Fisk, a crime prevention officer with CMPD, said the class teaches lessons learned from previous incidents, including the UNC Charlotte shooting. 

“We continued to see an uptick in active shooter events throughout the United States, and that’s why we continue to want to educate people,” said Fisk, who leads the course.

Other topics include:

  • evolution of law enforcement response
  • workplace violence
  • human response to stress
  • actions to take if encountered with an active shooting
  • basic first aid
  • how to react when law enforcement arrives

According to the Gun Violence Archive, the nation has experienced at least 1,700 mass shootings since 2019. The nonprofit organization defines a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are injured or killed.

The archives lists nearly 700 mass shootings in 2021, up from 611 in 2020 and 417 in 2019.

The CMPD workshops initially were held at the request of local businesses and churches, but last year the department opened the course to the public.

Among other topics, instructors discuss the actions of UNC Charlotte student Riley Howell. When the gunman opened fire inside the Kennedy building classroom, Howell, 21, tackled the shooter — a move that cost him his life but likely saved the lives of others.

“Because he took action, he’s a hero,” Fisk said of Howell, a ROTC cadet.

Law enforcement on the UNC Charlotte campus in response to an alert of shots fired on April 30, 2019. Photo by QCity Metro

At Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC), the UNC Charlotte shooting pushed the school to educate faculty and students on what to do in case of a similar incident. The school has hosted more than 10 workshops with CMPD since last fall. 

Tony Harris, the school’s associate vice president of risk, safety & security, said CPCC wanted to take a proactive approach — “training that is not only good for us here at the workplace, but it’s also good for us to have that awareness for wherever we are,” he said.

The course is offered at least three times a month. As more teachers are participating, Harris said, they are passing the information to their students.

“We all are connected with parts of the community, wherever we may reside,” he said, calling the CMPD class “an excellent service that’s being provided.”

Venson, the UNC Charlotte student, said he often reflects on the campus shooting and the emotional toll it has taken, not just on him but on other students.

“I was numb, to say the least,” he recalled feeling after he learned what had happened. “ I had heard news on other shootings before, but a part of me didn’t believe it was happening here.” 

Venson said he is happy that CMPD is continuing to host the workshops and will consider attending the upcoming session.

“I think it’s important that we have an opportunity to be taught what to do, but more specifically, what not to do too,” he said.

The April 21 workshop is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at the CMPD Academy, 1770 Shopton Road. To attend, register for free at eventbrite.com.

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